Beauregard wheezed, as his leathery brown fingers worked the handle of the water pump up and down. He strained to keep time with the rhythm and when he finally quit pumping, the water continued to flow, spilling over the pail. It wasn’t a large pail, or overly heavy, but it might as well have been full of lead for a man of seventy-five plus years. Just how many plusses came after the seventy-five was a mystery. He couldn’t remember anyone ever mentioning the year he was born, or even the month, and by the time he was old enough to care, there was no one left to ask. He knew only that he came with the cold winds and by the time the grasses returned he had suckled his mother to death.
Water slopped down his pant legs, filling in his moccasin rubbers, creating a sloshy layer beneath his leather wraparounds, as he trudged across the small yard. He was a wet mess by the time he reached the rickety old table under the cottonwood tree where he emptied what remained of the pail into a basin. The tree had a cross nailed to its North side, as did every tree in his yard — twelve in total, and not nearly enough to ward off all of the demons he’d spent a lifetime courting.
He plunged his hands into the basin and rubbed the palms together. The water turned pink with dissolving coagulated blood. From his pocket he pulled a blue bandanna and dipped it in. He twisted it between his hands to squeeze out the excess water, then wiped it across his brow.
In the orange dawn, he’d been out wandering the edge of the coulee when a moose crossed his sites. He’d dropped it with a single shot and had been dressing it out ever since. It wasn’t work for an old man, but he had no children to hunt for him, and he’d never thought towards a retirement plan. Besides, it wasn’t like you could get old age benefits without a birth date, anyway. Frankly, he hadn’t ever expected to live this long. No matter, he thought, as he dumped the dirty wash water over a small patch of garden. He hung the bucket on a nail that protruded from one of the outer walls of his one room house. Old age was what he deserved.
Back in the day he’d been spry, able to bound into a boxcar from a near standstill. Now he worried that the day was nearing when he’d no longer be able to clear the three foot fence that surrounded his cabin.
Stella had laughed when she saw that fence, thinking the gate was a detail he’d forgotten in senility. She’d offered to have someone come by to do it for him, but that was how Beauregard wanted it. A gate was an invitation for what he didn’t want visiting him. Not that it did much good most nights.
He walked over to the fence and braced his hands between the pointy peaks of the planks. His limbs extended an unusual length from his crumpled body, giving him not only an advantage for clearing high obstacles, but also a spider-like appearance.
Collecting his gangly limbs back into their correct order on the other side, he started off again, his inward pointing toes causing him to shuffle through the wild oats as he made his way to the quad and trailer Stella had given him the year before last.
He sat the ATV seat side-saddle, turned the key and steered it back for the river hills. Reaching the steep bank that overlooked the Beatton River, he geared down, swung around, and backed up the trailer. His head was light and his body heavy with a trance-like exhaustion, but the work was far from done. He’d need lots of wood for smoking and the river hills were a good spot to forage for some, as the only trees around his place were the twelve cottonwoods in his fenced yard.
He put the quad in park.
He reached down a long steep slope and grabbed a hold of a young poplar tree about his size that hadn’t faired the spring slough off too well. His chest contracting as though it was bound by a thousand retracting rubber bands, he drew the tree upward. Through wheezing breaths he managed to straighten his legs until the wide root base was up over the edge and on solid ground.
Feeling like consciousness might evade him at any moment, he settled the patched seat of his trousers onto the floor of the trailer for a short rest. It would be a helluva a lot easier to just let Stella move him to town. But he didn’t feel too fit for human consumption, and had told her so many times. Hermitage suited him just fine. But at any rate, the wood wouldn’t gather itself, so he pushed himself off of his bony bottom and went back to the steep bank to gather more wood.
Across the river something caught his attention. He called out to Gypsy, his croaky voice echoing off the river hills, his feet flattening a small panicked circle in the prairie grass, but she did not stir.
An ancient trail wound itself down the slope to a ford where cattlemen had once crossed their herds back and forth between grazing grounds. The trail, like the slope, was sloughed off in places and too narrow for the quad, but adrenaline revived some of his lost spryness, helping him to pick his way down the path like a half-lame mountain goat. He gritted what few teeth he had left, as the sharpness in his old bones jabbed at him, but he didn’t slow. When he reached the water’s edge, he called again to her. But still she did not move.
The river was like ice, even where it pooled at the wide shallow bend of the river. He tripped and stumbled across the ford, growing impatient with his useless old body, too winded to call for her again.
She was unresponsive when he shook her by her shoulders, but her breath landed hot on his cheek with the pungent smell of booze. One of her eyes was a dark dusk purple and swollen nearly shut. Looking around, he couldn’t find the pieces to fit into his imagination to guess what might have happened, but accidents were always a natural consequence when you added enough booze. He’d had plenty, and was no stranger to passing out either. More than once he’d spent days he couldn’t account for, out cold, only to wake up lying in his own piss and vomit.
Something beeped from inside her boot. Beauregard found her cell phone, but after staring at it for a full minute, he dropped it back in the boot. He had no idea how to use the damn thing. He never did have much patience for things that beeped. The sun was losing its light and a chill was rising in the gathering wind. Her skin was pocking with goosebumps, so he found her shirt and draped it over her frozen body.
Bonney plodded curiously out from beneath a tree and ambled toward them. He led the horse a ways up the trail toward Jacob’s, then smacked the blood bay hard on the rump, sending him cantering for home.
“You can’t outrun nothing with a bottle,” he said, returning to Gypsy’s side, as much to himself as to her. “The Lord’s mercy, if he’ll grant it, that’s the best any of us can do.”
She was shivering now, so he laid down and wrapped his spindly arms around her to give her warmth, saying a prayer that someone would come before nightfall.
A pulse pounded in Gypsy’s head, her brain moving in waves of inflation and deflation against her skull. Dad, I’m cold. I don’t want to be here. I just want to go.
Beauregard heard Jacob’s truck long before the headlights emerged from the trees. He rose to his feet and waived his arms frantically.
Jacob slammed the truck into park and jumped from the cab. He ran to Gypsy and scooped her cold body up in his arms. “Dad,” she muttered, “Dad please, I want to go home.” Jacob’s eyes darted to the indent in the sand where he could see Beauregard had laid beside Gypsy.
“I found her like this. I couldn’t wake her,” Beauregard said defensively, stepping backward.
“Get the fuck away from her you dirty old son-of-a-bitch. You’re lucky I lost my stomach for killing men since the days I first vowed I’d to put a bullet through you.” Jacob looked up and pointed across the river. “You stay on your side.” The words spat off his lips. “You keep your old pervert ass away from Gypsy, or one of these days I might find my appetite again.”
Beauregard’s black eyes, framed by their sagging lids, searched for forgiveness in Jacob’s stone face. Finding none, he turned away. “Don’t waste your whole life hating me, Jake. I’ll get mine soon enough.”
Jacob opened the passenger door.
“Dad? Dad?” Gypsy opened her eyes. “Jacob?” She was confused, and struggled in his arms, forcing him to set her on her feet. “Where am I? What happened?”
“I’m not sure. You look like someone beat the shit out of you,” he said. “When Bonney came home without you, I came looking.” He helped her into the truck and ran back to grab her boots.
Gypsy’s teeth rattled against each other. “I’m so cold.”
“Here,” Jacob said, pulling one of her arms through her shirt sleeve.
Gypsy waited on the closed toilet lid while Jacob ran the bath for her. Once the tub was full, he slipped the dirty white shirt from her shoulders. Gypsy’s head lulled apathetically to the side, as he helped her into the bath. The bruise above her eye had grown to a large lump and she was sure she was going to be violently sick. But it felt good to be cared for. The way Jacob sank the face cloth into the warm water and then dabbed it gently on her face, washing away the grime and sand, it felt like he could wash away anything.
“Why not me?” she whispered.
“What do you mean?”
“Why Stella? Why Cherry? Why the others, but not me? Am I that fucked up?” She brought her legs up and settled the good side of her face against her knees.
“It’s not that,” he said running the cloth over her enlarged ankle. What else could he say?
“What is it then?”
“We don’t need to talk about this right now.”
“No. We never talk about it.” She looked at him with such longing and innocent questioning, even through her blackened eye that he had to turn away.
“It’s not you,” he said, coughing into his sleeve. “Gypsy, you’re going to find a great guy one day. You’ll have babies and get fat and grow old together.”
“No. I won’t.” She turned her eyes away from him. “I’m a stripper. No one marries strippers, but bikers and freeloaders. I’m not cut out to wind up with some blanket bitch biker.”
“You can be whatever you want. Being a stripper isn’t who you are. It’s just what you do... did. You’re welcome stay on here as long as you want. You could go back to working in the oil patch this winter and make loads of cash. Maybe save for school. But right now, I think I should finish getting you cleaned up and take you in to the hospital. We can talk later.”
“Won’t make a difference anyway,” she said under her breath.
He laid the cloth over the faucet and helped her from the tub.
“Jacob?” she asked, as he draped the towel over her back.
“Can you call me Charlie?”
“Yeah,” she tried to smile, but the energy seemed too much. “My real name – Charlie... Charlene.”
“Sure,” he told her.